In the middle of a hot and humid afternoon, last night is still seeping out of the rocks. We are in a low place on a high place: caves and canyons on top of the mountain. We’ve driven an hour and a half north to find the same Pottsville conglomerate that we’ve explored five hours to the south in West Virginia.
We’re in a woods named Fred. The Fred Woods Trail is a five-mile loop in Pennsylvania’s Elk State Forest, named for a Bureau of Forestry foreman, Fred Woods, who died on the job in 1975. The trail was built by inmates in the Quehanna Motivational Boot Camp, mostly junior drug offenders, in 1980. To get there, you follow a steep gravel road out of Driftwood that ascends a chunk of the Allegheny Plateau called Mason Hill, which includes a number of hunting camps on private inholdings. The gated road into the trail is about a quarter-mile past the old yellow school bus.
The trail begins in a nice hemlock stand, but soon leaves that to wind through a typical Pennsylvania hay-scented fern savanna just like what surrounds the school bus: a thirty- or forty-year old clearcut that was never fenced, and has been ravaged by deer ever since. (All the surrounding private lands are posted for “No Doe Hunting.” Killing only bucks does virtually nothing to reduce the size of the deer herd.) I move as slowly as possible in the 85-degree heat. Fortunately, I still find a few things to capture my interest. Bare shelves of rock begin to appear beside the trail, each covered with a film of perspiration.
After about a mile, we enter an older, mixed deciduous forest and things get a lot more interesting. A fallen, curled-up petal from a tulip poplar looks for all the world like a pair of yellow lips. Mushrooms begin to appear.
And millipedes: we slowly become aware that the trail is a millipede highway. We pass dozens of them, all from the common woodland species Narceus annularis (or perhaps the closely related N. americanus – see comments), some digging energetically in the leaf litter, others thrashing around to try and discourage a host of small, presumably parasitic flies. Millipedes are sometimes called rain worms, because they tend to only come out of the ground when it’s very humid. The Tsonga people of Northern Transvaal and Mozambique invoke a species of millipede in a song used in rain magic:
Rain-making, rain-making, Hum!
Rain-making, rain-making, black millipede!
Black millipede, Hum!
Black millipede we want rain!
We want rain!
Whether or not millipedes have a role in making rain, however, it appears that they may help to mitigate the effects of acid rain here in the largely unbuffered forest soils of the Appalachians. One study near Ithaca, New York found that a sizable local population of N. annularis acted as a significant reservoir for calcium and phosphorous, essential minerals that otherwise tend to leach out rather quickly, especially when the rainfall is highly acidic.
Then something else catches our eye: dozens, and then hundreds of little yellow flowers on what we had initially taken to be grass. This turns out to be a type of stargrass known as common goldstar. And scattered among it are the blossoms of rattlesnake weed, also yellow.
A sign with a picture of a camera directs our attention to a view, complete with picturesque dead pine tree in the foreground. The haze is so thick, we can barely see ten miles. But my hiking companion points out a much more interesting sight at the edge of the clearing: a fallen pine tree that appears poised for flight on half a dozen Dr. Seussian legs.
That’s when we hear the first rumbles of thunder.
(To be continued.)